Martin Salisbury is a Professor of Illustration and course leader for Anglia Ruskin University’s MA in Children’s Book Illustration. To say he knows a thing or two about art in children’s books is something of an understatement. So back last Christmas, when I first heard rumours of his new book, 100 Great Children’s Picture Books, I knew it was going to be a 2015 highlight, a book that would open doors into new worlds, spark curiosity and… likely cause a run on my bank account.
Having enjoyed his past books (Illustrating Children’s Books, Play Pen: New Children’s Book Illustration and Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, written in collaboration with Morag Styles), I knew Salisbury’s selection wouldn’t focus on books which you’d find on sale in supermarkets or filling the weekly Top 10 list in The Bookseller. But I also knew I would make lots of discoveries and that I’d be challenged (so many books and illustrators I perhaps hadn’t heard of before, so much art which I might wonder about how children would respond to rather than adults). I knew it would be an exciting book.
And indeed it is.
Salisbury has chosen 100 books from approximately the last 100 years, using a “luxuriously subjective approach... [with] rather un-academic, unscientific criteria, ultimately based on the ‘wow’ factor.” Whilst the curator of this collection acknowledges that “the successful picture book is about much more than good art and design“, his focus is illustration alone. These books have not been chosen because they work well as complete books, where the storytelling and the interplay between words and illustration is as important and finely honed as the artwork. Rather, they have been highlighted because Salisbury is passionate about the pictures.
Gloriously international in its coverage, with books from Italy, France, Switzerland, Russia, Germany, Japan, China, Belgium as well as a large UK and US contingent, and with the added bonus of some historical contextualisation (the books are presented in chronological order so you can follow changes in printing techniques and the impact that’s had on illustration), this is a gourmet buffet for those with an adventurous palette. Even the inclusion of illustrators you’d place bets on having entries comes with surprises; Salisbury chooses books that are generally not the first associated with these big names. So Bemelman’s Hansi, and not Madeline is highlighted, Sendak’s The Moon Jumpers rather than Where The Wild Things Are, Velthuijs’s The Monster from Half-way to Nowhere rather than his Frog books.
Some illustrators get two entries, whilst others you might anticipate being included are absent (Shaun Tan and Anthony Browne for example), but this doesn’t matter. The aim of this book is not the provision of a definitive list; this is not a best 100, but rather a more honest and subjective, more playful simply great 100. Alongside interior spreads from the book in question Salisbury explains his choice, flavoured with opinions (you can look for entries including “appalling” or “extraordinarily naive“, for example), often with a brief biography of the artist.
This is a book for making discoveries, brilliant for collectors, those with a passion for viewing or creating art, and anyone with an inquisitive mind. It isn’t really a book for parents wanting to find the next great book to read to their four year old however. Many of the books included are not available in English translation, some are out of print and extremely expensive to buy and Salisbury’s tastes are probably more avant-garde than most who don’t live and breathe children’s books. I would have preferred the more honest title “Art from 100 Great Children’s Picture Books”.
But this is a minor quibble. 100 Great Children’s Picture Books, an intellectual and visual treat, does what every exceptional book does: it nurtures deeper engagement and sets you off on paths you didn’t previously know about but now want to follow.